A dilemma which faces many of us, especially those who live in a poor country, is how to respond to beggars.
Today’s first reading (Proverbs 3:27-34) offers some advice:
Refuse no one the good on which he has a claim
when it is in your power to do it for him.
Say not to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give,” when you can give at once.
The Christian Community Bible translation is a little more pointed:
Do not hold back from those who ask your help,
when it is in your power to do so.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go away! Come another time;
tomorrow I will give it to you!” when you can help him now.
The Jerusalem Bible seems to offer a middle position:
Do not refuse a kindness to anyone who begs it,
if it is in your power to perform it.
Do not say to your neighbor, ‘ Go away! Come another time!
I will give it to you tomorrow’ if you can do it now.
So what do I do when some one comes up to me and puts out a hand for money?
I notice that most Hondurans will give a lempira (about 5.5 cents) to almost everyone who asks them. This can happen in the streets, on the busses, or even if they enter a business. Frankly, I’m surprised.
But recognizing that I might come to be known as the “hand-out” gringo, I usually tell the person: “I am sorry, but it is not my custom to give money.”
A few years ago when we had a lunch program for kids here in Santa Rosa, I would tell the kids who asked for one lempira that there was a lunch program where they could get a meal. (Sad to say the lunch program has not reopened.)
But what I try to do is to look directly at the person and say this, treating them as persons. There have been a few times I’ve offered someone a meal and went and bought it for him. (Most beggars I see are men.)
Also, recently a young man I know ran across me on the street one night. He said his father was in the hospital and needed 240 lempiras (about $12.50) for a prescription. He showed me the prescription. I know the guy – he’s thinking of priesthood and works at the radio – and so I was more open to help. I opened my wallet and found only 140 lempiras (since I had left more cash at home). I gave it all to him. Walking back home I discovered I had a small wad of bills in my pocket that I had forgotten.
I hadn’t really given him all I had, but what I could.
What is right when someone begs from us? What is he or she really due?
This is a difficult question for me but I really think the answer lies in whether we establish a relation with the person begging.
I think of Peter and John in Acts 3: 1-10, confronting the lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate. “Gold and silver I have none,” Peter says, “but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up.”
Peter gave him what he had – the healing needed to bring the lame man into community with others. Peter and John “looked straight at” the beggar; they recognized their common humanity and common destiny as children of God.
So the next time someone asks you for money, do what you think best but at the very least look straight at the person, recognize him or her as a child of God, and address the person directly.
This may not be the best and most “Christian” response, but I think it is the starting point for us as we confront beggars, beginning to establish relationships.